Poor, pretty Ralph Whelan. After the first two episodes of Indian Summers (and vague recollections of the episode in the middle of the series which I saw in London) I can already guess what his Dark Secret will turn out to be, or at least what kind of a secret it is, and it will do nothing for his villain pin-up appeal. Of course, it will have something to do with his creepy obsession with his sister, butter-wouldn't-melt Alice, a good-looking young woman back in India for the first time since she was eight, when for unspecified reasons she was sent to England. In episode one, Ralph sends for their old rocking horse (with the help of a lot of Indian carriers), and it is revealed he has a photograph of Alice as a girl in his office. In episode two, Ralph sends for a piano (with the help of a lot of Indian carriers) because he remembers Alice playing on one as a child (she claims she doesn't play), and it is revealed he has an old drawing of hers in his possession. Get it yet? Creepy obsession! The Indian good guy Aarfir Dalal's love for his rebel sister is, on the other hand, entirely healthy and praiseworthy. There you go.
So, no real rich villain pickings there, then, in spite of Ralph being a looker and having two baths in as many episodes. Even discounting the whole sister thing, this villain pin-up is rather lazy when it comes to actually getting up to something villainous, or getting up to anything at all, really. Club owner Miss Cynthia (Julie Walters, getting the best part as is her due) and her Indian henchman Kaiser are far more active when it comes to mischief-making, as is sniping Sarah Raworth, who must somehow have missed out on the information that being a missionary's wife is not an easy life (hasn't she read Jane Eyre? Even Jane balked at getting hitched to a missionary).
Is it as schematic as that, then? English man bad, Indian man good except when he's in league with English man? More or less, yes, but it could be worse. It's not as if Ralph and Co. grind the local inhabitants' faces in the dust while calling them "filthy scum". Some Indians aren't doing that badly out of the Raj, all things told. Still, we're quite obviously meant to tut at the English folks' behaviour. The political backdrop is so desultory it's boring: the case for Indian independence is so self-evident in the modern minds of the series-makers that no-one bothers to make a rousing speech explaining why it is a good thing, much less put the case for the opposition. The characters fail to grip me so far, but I think I will hang on a little longer. After all, you have to admire the chutzpah of a costume drama that dares to include a dancing-the-grizzly-bear scene post-Downton.
Cultural consumption-wise, things are a little languid at present, in the style of Indian Summers (which is why I'm reduced to write about it after only two episodes). I had a lucky reading streak a few weeks ago when I read two page turners in succession: Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn and A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French. Curtain Call looks like a crime story from the blurb, but the crime plot feels a bit tacked on: its strong points are instead the Thirties London atmosphere (it helps that the protagonists, with one exception, all have enviably arty jobs) and its quietly likeable characters - or, in the case of the outrageously egocentric theatre critic James "Jimmy" Erskine, loudly likeable. It also contains this comforting sentiment: "Entertaining people generally are [selfish]". I was expecting French's A Tiny Bit Marvellous, about the trials of the Battle family, to be over-hyped, but was won over by it, in no small part thanks to Peter a.k.a. Oscar, the precocious and affected sixteen-year-old son of the family who channels Oscar Wilde. Having been a precocious and affected teenager myself, I can testify to the portrayal of this character being spot on, as well as very funny. It's also generous in a female writer to let the safe anchor of the family be not the wife/mum Mo, who is capable of being just as immature and self-centred as her teenage children, but the decent, long-suffering husband/dad.
After this winning streak, though, things have slowed down. I'm struggling a bit with the Jenny Colgan I didn't finish during my journey, Rosie Hopkins' Sweetshop of Dreams. The formula is too close to the Little Beach Street Bakery, and honestly, who in their right mind could prefer some country backwater (with or without a sweetshop) to London? I plan to tandem-read it with a Swedish, pretty ambitious novel set in Stockholm in the Eighties. I just hope it doesn't prove to be too ambitious.